Don’t Mention the Empire!


The British Empire holds a strange place in the UK’s national memory; many young people have little knowledge of it while many older people remember it fondly, with 65% of over 65s in a YouGov poll saying the Empire was something to be proud of in 2014.[1] Considering that the British Empire lasted for 500 years, it is rarely talked about, usually only brought up when talking about immigration or invoked as a nostalgic tool to invoke ‘Britannia’ in relation to issues such as Brexit.[2] Actual detail is rarely mentioned, it’s rarely covered in film or TV despite the UK’s love of period drama and the teaching of it in schools is minor, if existent at all.

I was never taught about the British Empire in school. I was never even taught about the slave trade, except for brief mentions during Black History Month – and then only the USA’s role was mentioned. I know some people a little younger than me at least were taught about the slave trade and going back to my parents’ school days of the 1960s and 1970s, the slave trade was mentioned. The British Empire overall though was barely touched upon. While teaching of the British Empire has reportedly been improved upon in recent years, it is still patchy due to a focus on certain aspects or periods of the Empire.

The problem with teaching about the British Empire is that it isn’t easy and it doesn’t make Britain look good. Take the teaching of World War Two in Britain – the Nazis were clearly evil and we fought against them, so we’re the good guys! Great detail is gone into on the Nazi atrocities, quite rightly. However any evil done by the British is glossed over to preserve the dichotomy. No talk of handing over Czechoslovakia to Hitler prior to the war; or the bombing of German civilians; or the British government doing nothing to help victims of Nazi persecution (the famous Kindertransport children were only allowed to enter the country if a non-governmental organisation found them a place to stay and a £50 bond per child was paid); the internment of those who came from countries who were part of the Axis Powers; and the blind eye turned to the rape of women and children, committed by Allied troops, by the Allied leadership to name a few. Acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Allies does not make the Nazis look at any better, nor does it mean disrespecting those who died – they were not the government. Acknowledging these atrocities does however damage the myth of a heroic Britain, of a past we should be proud of. That is exactly why the British Empire is such a touchy subject.

Exact numbers of those who died at the hands of the British Empire will never be known, and no estimation will ever be agreed on but let’s take a look at a couple of generally accepted figures. 3.1 million Africans were transported by the British to its colonies and other countries.[3] 1 million (at least) died in the Irish Potato Famine, while the British government exported food from Ireland and British landlords evicted families.[4] 4.3 million died in the Southern India famine of 1876–78, while the British government exported food from India and refused to provide any charity, instead forcing the starving to work for rations that were not enough to sustain them.[5] At least 28,000 Boer women and children and 20,000 Black people died in one of the earliest examples of concentration camps, created by the British Army during the Second Boer War.[6] These uncomplicated figures are enough to cause horror for any person with something resembling a moral compass. These are indefensible. These were civilians; the excuse of ‘they were attacking us’ just simply doesn’t count for these examples.

Now there are people who claim that the British Empire was a force for good, a highly controversial claim among many historians, but the major problem with the lack of education or thorough discussion of the Empire outside academic circles means that these claims are fed uncritically to the public almost always via newspapers and politicians who are using this argument for their own political means. For example, if we refer back to the atrocities above, the Daily Mail in one article claimed that during the British Empire ‘the occasional massacre was undoubtedly carried out’ but we played a role in ending the slave trade and ‘successfully exported’ democracy to countries that were colonies.[7] This of course shows a rather dismissive attitude to the deaths of millions and conveniently leaves out the British role in beginning the slave trade. This is not exactly unsurprising when you consider even Wikipedia refuses to use the Daily Mail as a source; that such an article makes no attempt to even vaguely consider history properly. It is also understandable in some respects why newspapers like the Daily Mail aggressively pursue such a position; they do not exist to teach history – or even tell the truth – they are there to push a particular opinion onto readers in the hope that readers will support their political aims at the ballot box to financially support their owners. This, of course, is not confined to just right-wing newspapers but to newspapers in general.

The problem is that when many peoples’ knowledge comes from journalists set on achieving political goals the actual debate and evidence of the Empire is not present. While historians cannot escape ideology completely, at least there is some kind of attempt at being critical of their perspectives and examining evidence. If an argument is to be made that the British Empire was ‘good’ then it should be put forward properly evidenced with historical rigour, with an actual chance of experts being able to debate the argument for its historical accuracy rather than political value. This is why it is so important that the British Empire is actually taught in schools so students have a chance to critically engage with the history rather than be fed carefully condensed politicised propaganda. An evidenced debate in schools has been favoured by school leaders and historians over a curriculum based on fostering patriotism.[8] This approach has also been favoured by students themselves.[9]

The lack of knowledge about the British Empire is particularly problematic because of how much of an impact it is having today. The British Empire created Apartheid in South Africa, and continued to resist imposing sanctions on the government till the end. Claims of violence between black and white South Africans has recently been the subject of interest amongst Trump supporters. The British Empire played a large part in the beginnings of the Israel-Palestine conflict, perhaps the most controversial conflict in modern history. After pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other for the British Empire’s own gain, the rushed partition of India helped cause the bloody legacy of the events of the partition that still plagues the relationship between India and Pakistan today. Intervention in Afghanistan began with the British Empire and the volatile state of the country can be linked back to British installed puppet governments. Proper understanding of these current events cannot be achieved without the knowledge of what past events caused them, and in so many cases the British Empire played some part.

It is even still having an impact on government policy as seen with the recent Windrush scandal with those who came to Britain and their descendants from former colonies in the Caribbean being threatened with deportation. The disregard for these people who spent their early lives under colonial control and then came to rebuild the UK due to lack of work available in their own countries because of colonial policy, all while having to cope with racism and poverty when they came to Britain. The recent scandal led to many of these people facing racism and poverty all over again; with many arguing that such behaviour would have never happened to white immigrants and that the decision to destroy records was racially charged. Whether such assertions are true or not, there is certainly an issue that being former colonial subjects that their history was not considered as important as white Britons.

Despite such claims that the British Empire was a good thing, even from politicians in government, there is a strong suggestion that perhaps the British government aren’t quite as proud about it as they claim. In 2011 a group of elderly Kenyans won the right to sue the British government for the torture they allege they suffered in the Mau Mau rebellion against the Empire. As a result of this an official review of colonial government papers, which unlike most government papers had not been passed onto the National Archives, was undertaken. The review found that they had been purposefully hidden, and that also thousands had been disposed of with the expressed intention by the secretary of state for the colonies so that any records that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” should be destroyed.[10]













The Battle of Britain Bunker, Uxbridge

This post will feature the newly opened, Battle of Britain Bunker and Visitor Centre on the former site of RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It is the only Second World War bunker to be preserved and open available to the public. The former RAF site was sold off for a new housing development in 2010. The Bunker was available for tours, booked in advance. Now however the site has been heavily invested by the financial backing of Hillingdon council and houses a new Visitor Centre adjacent to the Bunker, whereby prior booking is no longer necessary.  The Visitor Centre explains about the line of work that happened in the Bunker and features interactive exhibits and visuals relating to plotting, radar and collecting calls from telephones. It is also a good feature for those visitors who are less mobile as they can still see information and learn about what happened in the Bunker.

Outside the complex visitors are welcomed to the statue of New Zealander Keith Park (1892-1975), the Second World War Royal Airforce commander. He oversaw the running’s of the operation room at RAF Uxbridge for two years from 1940-1942. He was known as the “Defender of London” in Germany and for organising fighter patrols during the Dunkirk evacuation the Battle of Britain campaign. What’s more, the grounds also include a mock Hurricane, Spitfire and memorial close to the entrance of the Bunker immortalising the words uttered by Winston Churchill when he entered the Bunker on a visit in 16th August 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.


The Bunker

Upon arrival visitors must report to the entrance desk at the Visitor Centre to collect tickets to visit the Bunker. The Bunker operates tours in the mornings and afternoons. Please ensure to take a ticket and keep it on your person until the guide leads you to the entrance of the Bunker, it is here where you hand your ticket to a steward. When entering the bunker, you go down a long flight of stairs so be watchful.

The Bunker was the location for No. 11 Group RAF’s operation which served as part of the Dowding system. The Dowding system served as the world’s first conception network on land to control airspace in the United Kingdom. It used a telephone network to gain intelligence as opposed to radar that could have been intercepted. This Bunker is most famous for controlling airfield operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and additionally the Dieppe raid of 1942 and the D Day Landings of 1944.

Geographically there were several fighter command groups stationed in the United Kingdom they were divided into different geographical locations. No. 11 Group which encompassed the South-East, No. 10 Group covering the South West, No. 12 Group covering the Midlands, No. 9 Group covering the North West, No. 13 covering the North East and lastly No. 14 Group covering Scotland. Focusing on No. 11 Group its headquarters was located at Hillingdon House at RAF Uxbridge. The group’s operating room was within the Bunker underground, to avoid detection. A previous bunker was built over ground in 1939 but the idea of having an operations room over ground was too obvious in case of an enemy air attack.

The commands that occurred in the Operations room within the Bunker was passed onto airfields within the group. These airfields were divided into 8 different sectors. The Operations Controller was seated above a plot map and a display on the wall relating to the other RAF stations within the group covering; RAF Tangmere, Kenley, North Weald, Debden, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Northolt. These were the stations were fighter squadrons were based. It is important to note that everything displayed in the Operations room was always suited to the view of the Operation Controller. Additional staff included; Army and Navy Officials, Plotters, telephonists and RAF officers, one of which was the late Hollywood actor Rex Harrison.

The map of the United Kingdom and northern France was displayed on a large board whereby the Operations Controller could see very clearly where plotters would update them with necessary information. This was a job carried out by plotters who were mainly women from the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAFs). They were fed information from Chain Home Radar stations monitoring approaching aircraft, it was the Royal Observer corps that detected aircraft that was friendly or hostile. This information was fed to a Filter room whereby the plotters in this room would breakdown the information and relay it to the plotters in the Operation room. The plotters used long thin rods that would move markers on the map indicating numbers of aircraft and how many feet they were in the sky. It also displayed friendly and hostile aircraft. Depending on what information they receive the would move the markers across the map to provide the Operations Controller an up to date understanding of affairs happening in the skies.

Going back to the display on the wall depending on the different stations lights will flicker to state whereabouts aircraft is and to show the Operations Controller a physical embodiment/tracking of their decision making from standby to action. It is also important to note that the visibility and weather balloons was also marked on the display, again providing the best view to the Operations Controller so they can be best informed to make decisions. The plotters job was important as they had to ensure the information was kept up to date, otherwise that could mean drastic consequences for aircraft and cause confound decision making for the Operation Controller. When changing shifts, the plotters had to standby the other plotter they are shifting with to see what information they were being fed to again make sure the information on the map was current. This was also true when a plotter needed to take a break, the covering plotter had to stand with the plotter wanting a break for approximately 10-15 to ensure all information fed to them was being kept up to date.



The location of the Battle of Britain Bunker is easy to get to, it is close to the Town centre of Uxbridge, Greater London and has good connections to the A40 and M40. It is an easily accessible day trip from London as the tube serves Uxbridge on both the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. Additionally, the U2 is the nearest bus to serve the Bunker which will then take an extra 10-15 minutes to walk to the venue.



Residents of Hillingdon Borough can visit for free (upon showing Hillingdon resident card) as with servicemen/women and ex-servicemen/women. Please check with the venue for exact proving to those visitors from outside the area.


All in all, the Bunker and Visitor centre is a great day out for history buffs, particularly those with an interest in the Battle of Britain.

The Path to Operation Anthropoid

This post will document the Czech/Slovak resistance to Nazism in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. It was a time of great struggle for the people of Czechoslovakia under the Munich Agreement of 1938 the area of Sudetenland (today in the Czech Republic) on the borders of Bavaria, Saxony and Lower Silesia now Poland was amalgamated into Nazi Germany. It was in September of that year in 1938 that Adolf Hitler wanted to take Sudetenland. The area of Sudetenland had many German speakers residing there and many of the population suffered greatly during the Great Depression. Much of the population were employed in export dependent industries including; paper making, textiles, toy manufacturing and glass manufacturing. Many Sudeten Germans wanted answers to their problems and as a result they turned to more extreme movements to rectify this. One as such was Fascism. The Munich Agreement was a conference attended by Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. Czechoslovakia was not invited to the conference and as a result felt betrayed by the United Kingdom and France, hence the name the Munich betrayal. All parties signed the agreement on 30th September 1938, however it was dated on 29th September that Hitler was permitted to take Sudeten lands in Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovakian government was exiled to London. Fast forward a year and the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia was a separate pro-Nazi republic and Hitler proceeded to seize the rest of the area including Moravia and Bohemia where Prague is located. This fundamental decision on Hitler’s part ended appeasement. Later in 1939 Germany invaded Poland and propelled Europe into another war, The Second World War that would last another 6 years.

Resistance occurred in the form of boycotts and mass protest demonstrations at the start of the Second World War. Operation Anthropoid was a planned assassination of a high ranking Nazi Official by the name of Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was head of the Reich Main Security Office , General of Police and later Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. He was notoriously attributed to the “Final solution” to the Jewish question, helping to organise Kristallnacht and quash resistance in Czech/Slovak lands, this involved suppressing their culture. When he was in Prague he did not hesitate to eliminate any threat to Nazi rule. 92 people were assassinated shortly after Heydrich’s arrival to Prague and placed c.5000 people into concentration camps. Heydrich did not hide his intentions that he wanted the Czech lands to become German. The Czech people were an exploited labour force for Nazi Germany.

The Czech government in exile in London agreed that Heydrich was to be assassinated. Jan Kubis, a Czech and Jozef Gabcik were chosen to lead the operation and it was initiated by the Head of Czech Intelligence Frantisek Moravec and approved by Czechoslovakian President, Edvard Benes. They were trained by the British Operations Executives in order to carry out the operation. Kubis and Gabcik arrived via parachute in December 1941 and were in hiding whilst planning and conducting the assignation attempt. In this time they came into contact with anti-Nazi organisations and families that helped them and prevent them being thwarted. It was intended that they were to arrive in Pilsen, however this never happened due to navigation issues. This included doing background research that included Heydrich’s routine in order to paint a reliable picture for them to aid with their mission. It wasn’t until May 27th 1942 that they were successful. Kubis and Gabcik eventually settled on a plan to assassinate Heydrich in Prague.

On May 27th 1942 Heydrich left for Prague from his home in Panenske Brezany. The area that Kubis and Gabcik ambushed Heydrich was at a curvature of a tram line. This area was used because the curvature allowed for Heydrich’s car to slow down making the ambush seemingly easier to perpetrate. Kubis and Gabcik were stationed 100 metres from each other and when Heydrich’s car approached the curvature, it was Gabcik who opened fire at Heydrich with a sub machine gun but it wasn’t functioning properly. Heydrich ordered the car to stop to apprehend the assailant and tried to shoot Gabcik with his luger pistol. Upon witnessing this Kubis threw a grenade at the car. Shrapnel was scattered from the grenades collision through the car’s right rear bumper and hit Heydrich’s border (the shrapnel). Kubis and Gabcik shortly attempted to shoot in the direction of Heydrich but missed their target. Heydrich attempted to chase and shoot Gabcik but he collapsed and was bleeding heavily from his injuries. Heydrich’s driver attempted to apprehend Gabcik after Kubis left the scene by bicycle. However Gabcik wounded the driver and he too escaped. Initially it was thought on both Kubis and Gabcik’s part that the operation was a complete failure. Heydrich was later taken to hospital and operated on and needed blood transfusions. On 4th June Heydrich died from his injuries and contracted sepsis.

The consequences were that Heydrich’s death was the only successful assassination attempt of a high ranking Nazi official. Gabcik and Kubis managed to lay down low from preying Nazi eyes. In the meantime Nazi Intelligence linked the assailants to the village of Lidice and or Lezaky where the entire village was completely obliterated to the ground. Many inhabitants died. Intelligence officers alluded to the fact many Czech soldiers who were in exile in the United Kingdom originated in Lidice and so was concluded the assailants had connections there.

For a time it proved difficult for the Nazi’s to get a lead on who perpetrated the assignation. The bounty was set for 1million marks in exchange for where the assailants were hiding. A fellow exiled Czech soldier, Karel Curda who arrived along with 3 other exiled soldiers for their own mission to sabotage gasworks in Prague in 1942 as part of a resistance group Out Distance betrayed the operation and led the Nazis to those who provided help to Kubis and Gabcik. Those who offered help to the resistance were tortured, sent to concentration camps and killed. The torture for one young man, Ata was truly deplorable as after he was beaten his torturers showed the decapitated head of his mother. Ata resisted any attempts to reveal information for some time and continued to uphold his silence on the matter very bravely in the face of adversity. However, he later broke his silence under the torture and revealed to the Gestapo what they needed to know.

Nazi Intelligence found out that Kubis and Gabcik were residing in the Cathedral of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague. A shootout ensued which resulted in the death of Gabcik and other resistance fighters. Kubis alongside other resistance fighters committed suicide in the crypt. The Bishop Gorazd and other senior church leaders were shot by firing squad. In a noble fashion Bishop Gorazd took the blame for what happened in the Cathedral to protect his flock. The man who betrayed his fellow comrades, Curda was a Gestapo collaborator for the reminder of the war but after the war was over he was tracked down and charged with high treason and for punishment was hanged.

It is certainly an enthralling piece of Czeck/Slovak history and one that is remembered for those who fought for freedom and justice to crush Fascism and tyranny. The bullet holes are still evident on the outside of the Cathedral today from the shootout and today a museum is housed in the Cathedral. I was lucky enough to visit Prague and was staying in the Manes area in the New Town, fairly close to Wenceslas Square and to this day the bullet holes remain on the exterior of the Cathedral. Although, please note the museum is not open on Mondays*

There are two films that base the events of what happened; Operation Daybreak released in 1975, starring Anthony Andrews and Timothy Bottoms and Anthropoid released in 2016, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan that are both worth watching in order to gain more of an insight regarding the operation.

*correct at present time of publishing


Trip to Colditz Castle

In late July I was fortunate enough to travel Germany, taking in many of its cultural and historical sites. It is fair to say Germany did have plenty to offer in the famous cities and towns of Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Erfurt to name just a few. This post however will be about my recent visit to Colditz Castle, a place I was very keen on visiting upon my arrival to Germany. This post will mainly address the events of what happened during the Second World War but I will provide a basis of what occurred at Colditz Castle beforehand.

The castle is nestled on the outskirts in the small town of Colditz, approximately a fifty minute drive from Leipzig in the state of Saxony. Colditz Castle is mainly known as the German military prison Oflag IVC that held Allied soldiers. The original constructed castle was granted by Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor in 1046 and in 1083 the site was developed further by Wieprecht of Groitzsch. During the Middle Ages the castle appeared to be an important look out site for German Emperors as the location was close to Slavic territory. Eventually the old castle was destroyed by the Hussites, a Christian reformer group from Bohemia that sought for Czech national awareness and Protestantism.

Over time the castle design changed with the times as did the premise of the site. The site received a complete overhaul by the Elector Augustus of Saxony and it became a Renaissance style castle. The premise of the site too changed drastically in the 1600s the site was used as a hunting lodge, in the nineteenth century the area was completely transformed again to become a workhouse for the poor, a mental hospital and eventually a place where the Nazis sent those who they considered “undesirable” to the Third Reich; Jews, Gypsies and Homosexuals. As discussed the castle has a vast history and now it is time to address the events that took place at Colditz Castle during WW2.

Many readers will of course be aware of the events surrounding Colditz Castle during WW2 due to the BBC television series that first aired in 1972 and the Escape from Colditz board game that followed in 1973. Other popular means that depicted the basis of what happened at Colditz Castle during WW2 include a later television series that first aired in 2005 and a computer game that was released in 1991. Furthermore it is very possible that many readers have come across the events that took place at Colditz Castle through their own right. Although it should be noted that these mediums portray a basis on the events that occurred there.

Colditz Castle in spite of its large history, is often associated with the twentieth century, chiefly during the Nazi occupation of Germany from 1933 to 1945. The castle was converted into a Prisoner of War camp in 1939 for captured Allied men. These men came from many countries including; Britain, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Belgium, India (1), America and Canada. Given the fact that I toured Colditz Castle in a small group the ambiance seemed rather quiet and solemn. However life at Colditz for the captured was quite far from that. In actual fact the prisoners were permitted to make their own entertainment when imprisoned. Often they would play sports, produce moonshine alcohol, sing, draw, study, write and act in plays. Our guide told us that in August 1941 the Polish prisoners instigated their own Olympic games at Colditz these events included many pastimes such as; football, boxing and chess. The prisoners also invented a sport that they played in their designated courtyard. The game was a variant of rugby, it was called stoolball. The aim of the game was to score on the opposing teams stool. This sport was said to have drowned out the noise of other prisoners who were attempting to tunnel out of the castle. This leads me to explaining some extraordinary circumstances that happened at Colditz. In spite of Colditz being declared ‘escape proof’ by Hermann Göring, many famously attempted to escape and in some cases these were successful. Here are a list of some of them:


The French Tunnel-

The tunnels at Colditz was an incredible sight to behold. The French tunnel, although strictly speaking it was not a successful operation, it did however address the lengths prisoners would go in order to escape. A group of French prisoners hatched a plan to dig a tunnel out of the fortress in a bid to freedom. The tunnel was constructed in 1941 and was discovered by German guards in 1942. However having said that the tunnel was untraceable for the German guards for eight months and was nearly completed with only three metres left. The operation began at the clock tower of the castle and a tunnel was dug connecting this area through to the wine cellar, chapel and close to the exterior of the castle. Particularly, when digging occurred around the chapel more men were seen to be in choir practice. This was an attempt by many men to blur out the noise coming from the digging.   Remarkably the tunnel was dug out by none other than kitchen knives and bulbs lined the tunnel offering light, due to prisoners re-wiring the electrical system to the tunnel. With all the excess rubble from digging, the men managed to place it all in any spare pockets and put it underneath floorboards. This plan seemed to go well until the floor gave way due to the extra weight placed under the floorboards from the rubble. Today there is a display in the castle documenting the items that were used for this particular tunnel. The other tunnel I saw was dug by Dutch prisoners and it was a tunnel that did not go as far as the French tunnel, but it was still impressive to see what they did with the limited resources on offer.


The Glider-

The Glider was another exceptional plan that was hatched to escape from Colditz. Again as with the French tunnel this plan was not successful but it was arguably one of the most ambitious escape plans. This attempted escape plan proved to be popular in time and the concept of it was inspired by true events. It was made into a Television film, The Birdmen in 1971, whereby it depicted a success. The Glider was the brainchild of two British pilots, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch. Through much encouragement by two other prisoners they started construction in 1944 and was designed to sit two persons. It was assembled in an attic and was built with bits of wood and out of makeshift tools like metal in window bars attached to beech wood as a handle. Most tools were taken from the castle but one in particular was acquired from bribery, a drill. This was a rather remarkable feat considering Best and Goldfinch obtained a lot of information regarding the mechanics and physics from a book housed in a library onsite to ensure the Glider would be successful.

It was of course a tricky operation to maintain and the previous tunnelling systems appeared to make a lot of the Germans suspicious of similar activity to escape underground. Security was nonetheless prevalent amongst the prisoners. An alarm system was set up for them in case a German guard came close. Another way to cover up the construction was to ensure a false wall would protect those who were building the Glider. Unfortunately the Glider did not fly as it was completed in 1945 by this time an Allied victory appeared to be eminent and the Americans were close to liberating Colditz Castle. Although I did not see the Gilder as it was uncertain what exactly happened to it, I did however hear information about the history of it from 1944-45 by a tour guide.


The Undercover-

On the grounds of Colditz Castle there were large cut out pictures of those who attempted to escape Colditz by going undercover. In addition we were also told about other attempts of escape by a tour guide onsite that did not have cut outs of themselves. This I felt was a very interesting start to the day as it introduced to the men who spent time at Colditz. Here are three attempts that I thought were particularly clever-


The Lady-

In 1941 a Frenchman by the name of Lieutenant Chasseur Alpin Bouley dressed up as a highly respectable woman. It was unfortunate for him that he was caught after he had dropped his watch and a German guard went after “her” for Bouley’s plan to be foiled upon inspection.


German officers-

In 1941 Dutch prisoners Capt. E. Steenhouwer and Lt. J. van Lynden managed to dress up as German officers however they were detected and therefore did not escape. In 1942 Lt. van der Falk Bouman and in 1943 Capt. Dufour Flt. Lt. van Rood did the same thing and were also detected.


A handyman-

In 1942 a Frenchman by the name of Lt. A. Perodeau had a resemblance to a handyman that worked at Colditz Castle. His name was Willi Pöhnert. Unfortunately Perodeau was also detected and sent back to Colditz Castle. A lot of the time detection occurred as it was noticeable that some men could not speak German well.


It was not always an attempt-

Needless to say it was not always an attempt and I felt at times it was those who attempted the escape were better remembered, perhaps it was the heroism attached to it and the daring sense of adventure? Not to confuse anyone that I am profoundly putting that statement out there as a true representation, on the contrary it is an opinion.

It should be stated that some men in actual fact did escape a seemingly impossible fortress. These men came from different areas and countries from Britain, Poland, Belgium, France and the Netherlands but one stood out for me. This man was the only Indian to be captured by the German troops and sent to Colditz. His name was Capt. B. Mazumdar. Mazumdar’s way of escape was not like the above attempts but this is in no way less daring. He went on hunger strike in order to receive a transfer to another camp, he escapes from the new camp and beforehand Colditz to get to the new camp.

All in all it was an interesting place to visit and I would recommend to go there, particularly if you are thinking of visiting Leipzig or Dresden as it is in close driving distance. It has a gallery and small museum on site and you are shown around by an informative guide. It is recommended to book in advance prior to visiting.


Interview with Stardust Years owner, Karen Fitzsimmons.

Stardust Years is a brilliantly unique shop on the Winchester High Street, specialising in vintage and historical fashion items. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the shop for the first time and at once fell in love with the beautiful items on display. After my visit, I approached the owner Karen Fitzsimmons, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about historical fashion and the growing popularity of vintage-wear.

Q: When did Stardust Years open?

A: July, 2013

Q: Where do you get the items from?

A: That’s a bit like asking Tinkerbell where she gets her Magic Fairy Dust!  All I can say is that I go out and source all our stock myself.  We do not buy over the counter so, if you’re reading this and you have a treasure to sell please don’t come to us as you’ll only be disappointed.

Q: It must be hard to part with some of the beautiful items on sale, what has been your favourite item that you’ve encountered?

A: Oh, it is! I think there are too many to choose from but if I had to choose it would be some of the Rayne Shoes that I had when we first opened the shop.  As a result of researching Rayne Shoes, I met Nick Rayne, the son of Sir Edmund Rayne who steered the family business during its most successful years.  Rayne Shoes supplied many Hollywood stars with shoes, including Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. They also made the Queen’s wedding shoes.

Nick bought some of our shoes for the Rayne Shoe Archive (you can see some of our shoes – including the pair we donated) in the book, Rayne, Shoes for Stars which accompanied last year’s exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum. We were invited to the Book Launch at the Dorchester Hotel, held in the famous Oliver Messel Room. It was wonderful.  I was very sad at parting with the shoes so soon after I had found them – my husband took a photo of me saying goodbye to them when we were packing them for the courier’s collection!  However, they led me on an exciting journey and I know their beauty and craftsmanship will be enjoyed by so many more people in the future.

Q: When did your interest in vintage and historical fashion begin and why?

A: I loved Cinema from an early age and I grew up watching fabulous films from the 1930s, 40s and 50s which gave me my love for the fashions of the past.  They were so creative and glamorous.

Is there a particular era that you feel drawn to, and if so why is this? (Would you say it was based on the aesthetics of the era or a historical interest? Or both?)

A: My favourite eras are the 40s and 50s.  Across those decades there was so much diversity and creativity, even though we were plunged into a World War.  I love the tailoring, the detail and the care that went into the creation of accessories as well as clothing. Designers of some of the most glamorous fashions of the day were also involved in developing Utility Clothing (eg Digby Morton and Hardy Amies) and functional, eccentric items such as the Gas Mask Shoulder Bag (H Wald).

Q: What era of clothing is the most popular among your customers, and why do you think this is?

A: I think the 1950s is the most popular due to a number of factors.  There are the customers who are ardent vintage fans and attend a lot of vintage dances and weekend events.  The most popular period for vintage events seems to be the 1940s and the 1950s.  Then there are the customers who are looking for a dress for a special event and find the choice on the High Street limiting.  These customers find our 1950s rails attractive because of the diversity of styles that ran throughout the decade.  Whatever your figure, you can find something that suits you and looks wonderful.  The 40 and 50s were a time of great social change and these changes are reflected in contemporary fashion.

Q: What is the strangest/quirkiest vintage item you’ve encountered in the shop?

A: I can’t think of anything strange!  I always have to consider who would buy whatever I source. What I do love about vintage is that you can find quirky elements such as a 1940s clasp on a handbag or a clasp to a necklace.  We did have a marvellous 1920s bag with a mirror base and a large carved, enamel clasp which had to be twisted in a particular way to open the bag.  You can find lovely, unique accessories inside what appears to be a fairly plain handbag, too.

Q:  Do you have a vintage fashion icon or inspiration?

A: Too many to mention in terms of designers but Christian Dior is one of my favourites. I love those designers who also designed for the cinema such as Adrian, Edith Head and Irene Lentz and any of the actresses they dressed.

Equally, do you have a contemporary fashion icon or inspiration?

A: No.

Q: Can you see the influence of past styles on contemporary fashion? If so, what would an example of this be?

A: Oh, yes.  Nothing seems to be new.  There was a recent resurgence of 1950/60s fashions, as well as the 1970s with maxi dresses (which, of course were pre-dated by earlier fashions!).  I do wonder if future fashion will ever be as exciting as the developments that occurred during the 1910s – 60s.

Of course, fashion historians will be able to point to other great periods in history.  As the way we live changes, so will the way we dress so it’s interesting to see how young fashion designers will translate that into fashion and accessories.

Q: Why do you think vintage fashion is becoming so popular? In your opinion, would the popularity of programmes such as Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge have anything to do with this?

A: Popular culture has always influenced fashion so it’s no surprise that very successful period dramas have contributed to the continuing popularity of vintage fashion.  There have also been a lot of anniversary events around the two World Wars and I think that has increased the interest in the 1940s, in particular.

The way in which we celebrate our lives has also been influenced by popular culture and social history.  We’ve seen customers buying vintage for birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.  Sometimes, it’s been a Mad Men birthday party or a 1930s wedding. I once had three ladies in one afternoon all going to the same 1940s party but none of them knew each other.  None of them liked to dress in unfamiliar clothing! (With each lady, I looked at our reference books, discussed what they already had in their wardrobe and accented it with an accessory or advice on hair).

Q: What would you say to someone with a newly found interest in vintage and historical fashion? Any tips or advice?

A: I would recommend joining the mailing list of the Fashion & Textile Museum in London.  They have some fabulous exhibitions. I would advise anyone wanting to buy vintage to be discerning – for me, there’s a difference between vintage fashion and old clothing.  Good vintage will cost more but it’s worth it for the superb tailoring and quality of the fabrics. I have some customers who come to Stardust Years because they’ve become collectors and buy investment pieces.  Others, are looking for a high-end piece of fashion that’s unique and won’t be identifiable as a “High Street piece.” Then there are those customers who just want to enjoy wearing the fashions and feeling a little closer to the past.

Also, always try on a garment – and never over jeans! I love wearing vintage but shapes have changed – plus, we’re all individuals!  I’ve never agreed with fashion sizes – we don’t fit a designated size. For this reason, I never buy my vintage wardrobe online.

Finally, remember there are no rules – you don’t have to go for the “complete” vintage look. Sometimes, it’s just as much fun and stylish to put the past with the present and create an individual look for you.

Q: Is there any era that you dislike in terms of the fashion trends? If so, why is that?

A:  The 1970s – I remember it the first time round – and I wasn’t keen on it then!
Though, looking back, I do admire what designers like Zandra Rhodes and Emilio Pucci achieved.

Q: What do you think we can learn from vintage and historical fashion?

A: The way people lived their lives, how our values have changed and how much effort went into creating something – whether it was a dress or a handbag.  People comment that our stock is in very good condition (most of it, anyway!) and that’s generally because, people didn’t have many clothes.  “Sunday Best” was exactly that.  Hardly worn and very well looked after because their “Sunday Best” was the only Best they had.

I’ve seen haute couture items by Dior, from the 1940s and 50s, which were constructed with wide inner seams so that as the wearer’s shape changed, the fashion house could alter the dress, accordingly. Nowadays, we live in “disposable” times – if something breaks, needs a part or needs letting out, we don’t mend it, we throw it away and just buy a replacement.

Q: Have you ever encountered an item with a really fascinating history attached? 

A: We have a costume once worn by actress Glenda Jackson in the film The Incredible Sarah, based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt. The designer, Anthony Mendleson was nominated for Best Costume Design in 1976 (but lost out to Danilo Donati’s Fellini’s Casanova).  It has a gorgeous circular train and would be a beautiful wedding dress. We also have a fur wrap believed to have been worn by actress, Vivien Leigh.

Sometimes, the most interesting items are the ones that come with clues to their owner/wearer’s life eg the 1930s clutch bag that has a theatre ticket inside it, dated the 18th of August, 1945.  When we find such clues to its past, we always keep the item with the vintage piece.  I once had a 1940s suit with a damaged skirt.  The jacket was priced but the customer had to take the skirt, too (at no charge, of course). I couldn’t bear to have them parted, not after they had been together for over 75 years!

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just that if you find a vintage item remember, it is just like you; individual and unique – you won’t find anything like it anywhere else!

Q: Thank you so much for your time.


A great many thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions, I loved reading your responses. Stardust Years will be celebrating its third birthday this weekend. To help celebrate in style, there will be free signature cocktails as well as the return of the TLC Rail, and vintage ‘Rescue Remnants,’ going free to a good home! On Sunday afternoon, between 1 and 3pm, Stardust Years will also be joined by Virginia Hannan, Bespoke Dress Design who will be available to offer tips and suggestions on dress design and alterations.

More information can be found on Karen’s Stardust Years blog, and on their Facebook page.

Remembering the Brave – Photographic Collection of Oslo’s Memorials

Today I am not going to speak much. I am no warfare specialist as you all know, that is an honour reserved to Alex and Michael in here. However, my work involves a lot of work in the field of memory studies. And if I came out of Oslo with a particularly strong image of something in my head, it was that of all the memorials, plaques and monuments erected to honour those who serve their country, and those who fell. I think it shocked me because I did not expect to see so many – after all Norway was a neutral faction during the Second World War, right? But it is clear that the Norwegians feel differently about their history. I learnt a lot about how war has affected Norway through history while visiting the Forsvarsmuseet (Norwegian Armed Forces Museum) and the Resistance Museum at Akershus fortress and it made me reflect on other examples. Living so close to London, anywhere you go in the city you can find great war memorials. And even in our cosy, tiny Winchester their presence is not something you can hide. However, Oslo left me with the feeling that the losses suffered in Norway were noticeable, but there was no grandeur about them. The memorials were rather solemn and simple, but dignified. In many ways, I think they represent more the ideals that were protected rather than highlight the victims of the fight; it is not about the lingering feeling of sadness and grief perpetrated by the war, but it is about respect. Or at least that is how I perceived it. Perhaps this has to do with the role of Norway in the war – neither a winner, nor a loser, but a casualty nonetheless. Perhaps it is related to their own ideas of nationalism, which were felt in a much different way than elsewhere in Europe, particularly if you compare them with the UK. Or maybe, this is Norway’s way of acknowledging but not vigorously remembering a painful part of their history – after all the act of collective memory is just as much about the intentional remembrance as it is about the forgetting.

Any further information on the subject that you would like to share would be more than welcome – but until then, I hope you can share a moment of silence while educating ourselves in the pain of others, while remembering that there is always more to war than losing and winning factions, and that when the world rages, no nation suffers on their own.

*Please keep in mind these are not all Second World War Memorials – although the majority are*

This is outside St.Olav's church (Oslo).
This is outside St.Olav’s church (Oslo).

Memorial outside of Oslo's central station.
Memorial outside of Oslo’s central station.

This one is at Bygdoy by the maritime museums.
This one is at Bygdoy by the maritime museums.

The following were all outside the Forsvarsmuseet.

IMAG1560_BURST002 IMAG1561_BURST002 IMAG1562_BURST002_1 IMAG1556_BURST002_1 IMAG1558_BURST002_1 IMAG1559_BURST002_1 IMAG1557_BURST002_1

Memorial plaques inside the Forsvarsmuseet.
Memorial plaques inside the Forsvarsmuseet.

Outside the Resistance Museum.
Outside the Resistance Museum.

Memorial plaque outside the Resistance Museum.
Memorial plaque outside the Resistance Museum.

Final display inside the Resistance Museum - "Never again".
Final display inside the Resistance Museum – “Never again”.

We’ll Meet Again: The Breakdown of Family Relationships after World War Two

Featured Image taken from: Image shows Bridal Party leaving the Church, in South Wales in 1947.

When thinking of the World Wars and relationships, they are often thought of in two ways. The first, the strengthening of a bond after war because of what was nearly lost. The second, women widowed because her boyfriend, lover or husband never did come back. The generation of widows and spinsters after the First World War is a common phenomenon that comes up in conversation, and those who can remember the 1970s often mention the number of elderly women who were single, possibly because their husband or boyfriend had died in the war. However, for this piece, I wanted to look into something else. I wanted to counter the idea that those men who did come back, came back to strengthened relationships. In fact, it can be argued many came back different men, from the things they’d seen and done, to both wives who didn’t really understand and children they’d barely ever seen. This post will looking at marriage in general and the Second World War, which means both marriages and relationships that were established before the Second World War and those during the war. My interest here is on the effects on relationships post-war.

Divorce Rates

In their essay on World War Two and divorce in the US, Pavalko, Elder and Elder, Jr. underline that Veterans were more likely to divorce than non-Veterans. In the US, they claim, divorce rates soared to a new high, and it was usually attributed to the new, quick marriages during the war.However, there have been few studies to this field, and therefore not much discussion on what exactly caused these consequences for marriages and families. The graph below demonstrates the slight peak in divorce rates in the US, just after the end of the war. But why? Was it because the families could not cope with the return of often incapacitated men? Or was it because women had found a new freedom in the war, with industrial work, and didn’t want to give it up?


Returning Sweethearts and Unknown Fathers

The graph above also illustrates the rise in marriages, indicating many were celebrating their sweethearts returning home, but why then did divorce also peak? One reason could simply be, the man who returned home was unknown to the family of young children. Many young children who had grown up during the war, old enough to remember it but too young to remember their father who only had returned home sporadically if at all, arguably did not understand the new hierarchy created with his return. Considering the first few years are vital in forming relationships with parents, having an absent father would have affected the development of these relationships not only in the immediate aftermath of the war, but also in later life.

Of course, one factor is that of hasty marriages in wartime, and the subsequent breakdown of these. Returning sweethearts were sometimes just that, brief sweethearts whose moment in the sun had passed. However, for many, the issue was deeper than that. Unknown fathers were returning from war, but also were changed husbands. Much has been written on the shell shock of World War One, and the repercussions from that, especially concerning deserting and cowardice. However, this is as much an issue after the Second World War. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not defined as a mental illness until the 1970s, with the diagnosis of Vietnam veterans. The issue before and during the Second World War (and of course, after) was that only weak-minded and hesitant men were affected by psychiatric problems caused by combat. Wilbur Scott, in his article, underlines that in the Second World War, it began to be documented that even men who had performed well in previous combats were affected by trauma and mental health issues. This illustrates a changing view – that mental health problems could affect anyone.

Misunderstanding Mental Health

It was an issue that went widely ignored, much like after the First World War. Even when there was some consensus amongst medical professionals that anyone could be affected, ‘weak-minded’ or not, there was still some dispute that it was a real medical issue. One US general, George Patton, notably stated that ‘I won’t have the hospitals cluttered up with these sons of bitches who haven’t got the guts to fight.’ This attitude, and the following lack of support for those coming back at the end of the war, resulted in the straining of relationships, with both their spouses and their children..

However, it was not only the men who suffered from mental illness. Harry Leslie Smith fought in the Second World War and met his wife, Friede, during his time-serving. She was from Germany, and had seen and dealt with some life-changing experiences. Her father had been a trade-unionist and therefore an enemy of the Nazi party, and she had seen her city of Hamburg firebombed in 1943, in which tens of thousands were killed. Because of this, after the war and her move to Britain with her new husband, she grew depressed, withdrawn and anxious. Smith claims these times were particularly trying, and difficult for them to understand and get through. Mental health is viewed poorly enough now, but in post-war Britain it was barely understood, let alone talked about. Memories of shell shock shadowed the previous war, but it was something the people trying to rebuild their lives couldn’t understand in the same way.

Smith underlines how the National Health Service (NHS) and its establishment were pivotal in their understanding of what Friede was going through. The doctor they saw treated Friede for depression and what is now known as PTSD.  Smith attributes the NHS into helping save his marriage, and his wife. However, this also makes it evident that the lack of knowledge surrounding these issues meant not everybody took advantage of the new free health service, nor did many people realise there was something wrong health-wise to help treat the issue. Smith himself states it was only when a friend recommended going to the GP did either he or his wife contemplate seeing a doctor for her problems. This illustrates how many marriages and relationships may have disintegrated due to this lack of understanding, and also lack of help and discussion concerning contemporary mental health issues.

The Man’s War vs The Woman’s War

When looking at marriages and relationships between men and women in the Second World War, it is important to underline the different experiences both have had. For some women in Britain, they had been a driving force in industry and gotten a taste of working life during the war, and afterwards were expected to go back to the home and to raise their families. This was something some women could not adjust to. In the same way, it was also difficult for men to adjust from fighting in a war – from having seen death, come near to death and having killed – to going back to day-to-day work life.

Although the image of wartime for women is often that of increased freedom to work, the case for many was unexpected single motherhood – and usually the raising of very young children. Married women who had had children in the years leading up to the war had not expected to be raising their children alone. This in itself, in 1940s Britain, was a difficult task and could have had an effect on familial relationships, not only with the children and their father, but with the woman struggling to see her husband in an equal role to hers as a parent, when she had been the only one caring for the children for so many years. This would have put a further strain on family dynamics.

This post has mainly been used to establish reasons why family relationships broke down after the Second World War. It is also important to consider that not all separations ended in divorce, due to their time-consuming nature and expense, especially amongst working-class families. Unfortunately, this post is lacking evidence and is mainly based on theories, but I thought it was an interesting topic to share theories on, and hopefully in the future more research will be done on this topic. Soon, like the First World War, this period will be out of living memory and now is really a good time to start asking these questions, and a good time to build up some new evidence.

Further Reading

History of PTSD: World War Two

Harry Leslie Smith: The NHS Changed Everything

Lewis, Jane, Women in Britain since 1945 (Oxford 1992).

Pavalko, E.K., Elder, G.H. & Elder, Jr., G.H., ‘World War II and Divorce: A Life-Course Perspective’, American Journal of Sociology, 95, 5 (1990), 1213-1234.

Scott, W.J., ‘PTSD in DSM-III: A Case in the Politics of Diagnosis and Disease’, Social Problems, 37, 3 (1990), 294-310.

Wilson, Elizabeth, Only Halfway to Paradise: Women in Postwar Britian: 1945-1968 (London 1980).

The Role of Greenland in WW2 and The Cold War

Although Greenland has always been one of the more remote places of the world, its position leaves it with a potentially very significant role to play in any world-wide conflict. The Geographical location of Greenland is important for three reasons, the first being that it is part of the land that forms the ‘GIUK Gap’ which is an important naval choke point in the north Atlantic that is between the landmasses of Greenland, Iceland and the UK. Secondly Greenland is the perfect place for weather stations that are necessary for detecting conditions that may affect weather farther south and East. Finally radar stations are needed in Greenland in order to track aircraft due to it being on the shortest route between Europe and the United States.

Obviously the biggest examples that could include this region are World War Two and the Cold War. But before WW2 in 1934, the importance of the region was first discussed by the USA. In this year a mass flight of US bombers from Washington D.C to Alaska was undertaken in order to demonstrate the capabilities of the U.S. Army’s latest long-range bomber, the B-10, but it did something else: It demonstrated the importance of the Arctic to aviation. At this point the USA was most concerned about Japan and the potential for their attacks on Alaska as Anchorage, Alaska is almost exactly equidistant from Tokyo, New York City and London. That’s part of the reason it’s one of the world’s largest air cargo hubs today. Once WW2 was underway however, they soon saw a similar significance to Greenland as If you fly between the eastern United States and eastern Europe or Russia, or between the western United States and western Europe, you will need to pass over Greenland.

In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark on its way to an invasion of Norway, and almost a year later, the United States signed the US-Danish Agreement on Greenland, which permitted the United States to establish military bases in Greenland. Despite its remoteness from densely populated areas, Greenland is considered part of North America and thus falls under the Monroe Doctrine, which states efforts by European nations to interfere with North American issues will be opposed by the full ability of the United States. In July 1940, the foreign ministers of the Americas declared that “any attempt on the part of a non-American state against the integrity or inviolability of the territory, the sovereignty, or the political independence of an American state should be considered an act of aggression.” This was aimed at Nazi Germany, which had by then occupied several European countries that had possessions in North America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the Germans were undeterred and  in the summer of 1940, German ships, apparently on scientific or commercial missions, landed people on the eastern shore of Greenland. German submarines secretly landed other parties. These were all attempts to establish weather stations on Greenland (similarly attempted in remote areas of Canada as well) in order to help forecast the weather for Germans submarines at sea and for continental Europe. In the autumn of 1940 and again in spring 1941, German long-range aircraft flew over Greenland. This led to the belief that the United States had the authority to act to establish bases in Greenland to provide for its defense. During the course of the war, thousands of American aircraft flew over Greenland on their way to Europe. American soldiers were stationed in the icy territory as a defense mechanism, and American civilians and soldiers manned weather stations to assist the war effort farther east.

Perhaps one of the least well-known campaigns of World War II was the hunt for these German weather stations. The United States began doing this in 1940 and the job fell mostly on the shoulders of the US Coast Guard who patrolled with ships and aircraft, looking for German weather ships, or supply boats attempting to reach weather stations the Germans had set up. They were also assisted at this point by native Greenlander trackers who assisted in spotting. On top of these efforts there was also the ‘Sledge Patrol’ which was a 15 man mixed force of Norwegians, Danes and Greenlanders supported by the US who spent much of the war patrolling the coast and hunting Germans as well. On dog sleds, 2 and 3 man patrols would head out for a few months and attempt to find German weather stations in a game of cat and mouse, with the Germans Generally the mice and having to pack up their station and flee if discovered. The Germans did strike back however, in an attack on the Sledge Patrol’s base camp, killing one member of the team, Eli Knudsen, the only loss they endured.

The last land based weather station of the Germans was knocked out in October of 1944. Spotted by the USS Eastwind during a patrol, a landing party of Coast Guard sailors (Who, as part of this role, underwent special training under the supervision of commandos), made a nighttime landing and caught the Germans by total surprise, and were able to capture most of their documents. No more German land based stations were attempted after that, although offshore trawlers were still utilized.

Even before the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949, some in the USA were looking ahead for what they saw as the next global conflict: The war between the United States and the Soviet Union. After WW2 the USA offered to purchase Greenland from Denmark for $100,000,000 but was rejected. For several years Denmark was under pressure from its citizens to get rid of the American military bases, while constantly in a back and forth with the USA who would not drop the issue. Events elsewhere in the world in 1948 and 1949 quickly overtook these events. The Berlin Blockade, Soviet pressure on Finland, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the detonation of the Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 all pushed the Cold War into high gear. It became politically impossible for the Danes to evict the United States from Greenland altogether.

By 1950, the United States was putting nuclear capable bombers into its base at Thule in northwest Greenland. The following year in 1951, Denmark and the United States signed an agreement that overwrote the 1941 deal where Denmark would keep sovereignty over Greenland, but the United States would be allowed permanent military bases. In the years that followed, the American presence spread. From Thule and other air bases, the United States and Canada built radar stations as part of the Distant Early Warning Line designed to detect Soviet bombers. In 1960, the United States activated the world’s first Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar in Thule. Greenland throughout the Cold War was used as a vital position from which to defend its North and Eastern borders from potential air, missile and submarine attacks.

The 1951 agreement lasted until 2004, when the United States and Denmark signed a new Greenland defense agreement.

Red Orchestra 2: A Historical Game Review

For my second post in the series of historical game reviews I’m going for something completely different. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is a realistic multiplayer first-person shooter. It is the sequel to Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 and was released in 2011 by Tripwire Interactive.

This game is fairly unknown in the mainstream gaming audience. It received favourable reviews on release, but 4 years on it is now almost entirely played and kept active by a relatively small but dedicated group of players who stick by the game for its unique blend of tactical realism, immersive design and familiar core gameplay mechanics similar to more regular shooters. This great combination results in the game being an unmatched masterpiece of its genre. While there are games that are better simulators, more visually impressive games, and even more well made gameplay experiences, none can compete with Red Orchestra’s approach that has resulted in a simple yet meaningful and visceral historical experience. A testament to the value of this interactive medium and the advantages it has over others in historical depiction and more.

Historical Content

This game is fairly minimal in its raw historical content. As the name ‘Heroes of Stalingrad’ implies, the whole game takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943). There are the two sides, the Axis and the Allies consisting of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Each location that the multiplayer matches are played in are all part of the overall map of Stalingrad and its surrounding areas and outskirts. For each of these locations there is a story for the game, which corresponds to a real live equivalent in the conflict, but the real outcomes can obviously be meddled with if the wrong side wins. The history of each location, as well as other details such as information on each weapon featured in the game can be found here: link 

History Conveyed Through Gameplay

When playing the game there are a lot of smaller details that really enrich the experience. To begin with, this game has some of the best weapons I have ever seen, on many levels. The different guns are all modeled incredibly well and all seem to handle and sound different and distinctive. The way the character uses each gun is realistic in an interesting way, and sometimes you need to do things like brace your weapon against a wall or window to shoot more steady. You need to think about the differences between the power, speed and reloads of each weapon, and you may find yourself preferring a favourite for small details like it’s weight and how it effects your movement, or the way the sights work. On top of these details, the combined smoke, noise and recoil of all the weapons can feel quite overwhelming at first, especially when compared to more popular games where the weapons might as well be BB guns in comparison.

That brings me onto the second point. As you use each weapon, and fight more battles, your character will improve their skills and equipment. This is a very subtle mechanic, not like other games where you may level up to be twice as good at everything, but it still makes a real difference when your soldier goes from being a bit slow on the reload and lining up the sights of his gun, then being very shaky and breathing heavily and staggering at nearby explosions, to eventually becoming a battle hardened veteran who can smoothly operate his weapon, reload and aim quickly, and flinch less, allowing you to overall make better shots with quicker reaction time. You also upgrade your equipment from standard issue to finely tuned weapons that are more accurate and slightly easier to use, as well as unlocking larger magazines, bayonets, and scopes if appropriate for the weapon of the period.

Other small details that add to the game also come in the form of realistic historical depictions that can serve a double purpose as game mechanics, something that I believe other historical games should strive to do better. For example, in a realistic shooter you aren’t going to have big markers over your teammate’s heads, so you usually need to recognize them by their uniform to avoid friendly fire, but this isn’t always possible and accidents do happen. One thing that helps with this is looking at the way your target moves, are they sprinting with their rifle held by their side in one hand, or in front of them with two? If the former, then he’s a Wehrmacht soldier, trained to run that way, open fire comrade!

Another detail is that when you improve your character, you can also eventually unlock the ‘enemy weapon’ meaning at the highest rifleman level, you can choose to use the other team’s rifle, and the same for other classes of soldier. How this plays out is that each team will end up wanting to use the better weapons from the other team. This can also be done by looting in the middle of the game, but that isn’t always as practical. For example, the Russian machine gunners usually go for the german MG-34, or even better the MG-42 machineguns, and the Germans usually go for the Russian PPSH-41 submachine gun. It was actually fairly common for the Germans on the eastern front in the war to prefer the Russian PPSH, and many were captured and re-issued under different names, or even re-chambered to use German ammunition. The fact that this is in essence the same thing that occurs in the game points to the excellent job the game does of recreating the effectiveness of each real weapon.

As I said before, the game is fairly minimal in its historical content, at least when you look at it from the outside. Once you start playing however, is when the true potential of the game shines through. The somewhat limited breadth of the historical content allows the game to focus on some key aspects. Where another WWII game might be single player and have the player visit various fronts of the war across different stages of the war, this game has you stuck in the battle of Stalingrad. The fact that the game is only made for online multiplayer somehow adds to the experience, rather than making it feel more like a game, it makes things more tense and unexpected, and the overarching campaign that each match is part of can feel never-ending. A real slog to victory, or a struggle on the brink of defeat as you defend your very last territory on the map . There’s a real sense of teamwork and a proper chain of command in a good game, and when that falls apart and players ignore the commander and squad leaders the battlefield can become a real slaughtering ground.

When you get down to the small details, such as the well animated characters, the fantastic voice acting of realistic rallying calls, cries of pain, and even gurgling death, or the deafening sound of gunshots and artillery, the experience is incredibly immersive, and completely intimidating. At times like this the game can be compared to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with bullets cracking overhead, comrades running beside you one second and vaporized by a mortar shell the next, and no knowing what will happen. Will you make it to wherever you’re desperately sprinting to, or will you be caught by a stray round? where are you even going? does it matter? The game can get so intense at points that you might start thinking of disobeying the commander and saving your own skin, and you may end up in the exact sort of situations you see in these war films, or even what you may imagine happening in war, but in this case, you are in control of what you do. You are this one soldier, and the rest of the soldiers on this battlefield are just like you and could make any amount of unpredictable decisions or snap judgments that can end in perhaps infinite circumstances.


In conclusion, I must say that this is one of the best games to depict The Second World War. Even though it does not cover the whole war, or include a great deal of historical fact in detail, the type of experience it can give you gives insight into the history from a different perspective and is really very well done. The game plays to the strengths of the medium and delivers an interesting, challenging and thought-provoking experience that I believe can’t be matched by any film or book.

As a side note, if you are interested in this game, there is also the game Rising Storm which comes as part of Red Orchestra 2, and although it lacks some of the polish that this game has, it is almost the exact same type of experience but in the setting of the Pacific in WWII.